Perfectionism: A Three Part Series

Originally published as a project for an internship at Ma’yan, a Jewish, feminist, social justice organization working to empower young women in New York City. The original posting from February 11, 2016 can be found on Ma’yan’s blog under “What is Perfectionism?” 

Part 1: Perfectionism is systemic. And perfection is an imaginary concept.

Mainstream opinion has shifted significantly since mentioning “perfectionism” as a weakness in a job interview was an effective tactic. Now, serious perfectionism is seen less as a humblebrag and more as a true struggle. Yet even as the symptoms of perfectionism become increasingly recognized as dangerous, its instigators continue to rise and expand. Today’s young people are expected to participate passionately in endless pursuits, excel in them all, and maintain a sense of balance, humility, and even self-deprecation throughout. Competition in all areas — social, academic, and others — is more aggressive than ever. Failure to emerge as the absolute best in every undertaking is terrifying for many teenagers.

What distinguishes perfectionism from an extreme yet healthy drive, however, is the translation of achievement — and on the flip side, failure — into self-worth.

As a white, middle class, Jewish teenage girl, I often find myself so preoccupied with concerns that my work will not reflect my best possible effort, or that I’ll fail to distinguish my unique assets, that I cannot even begin. When or if I do, I am interrupted by self-talk riddled with criticism, doubt, and shame that it took me so long.

This derogatory mindset extends far beyond academics. If I’m not proving myself especially adept in a single aspect of my life, I feel that my other accomplishments are somehow diminished. If I mess up one paper, one conversation, one race, one interview, one attempt at flirting, one task on my to-do list, then I feel that I am incompetent and should probably quit altogether. If one other girl is prettier, skinnier, funnier, or more confident than me, I am automatically hideous and unlovable. This kind of exaggerated, binary thinking eliminates room for nuance, perspective, pleasure, and results in the need to constantly outshine everyone else simply to avoid being overlooked.

Privileged, white teenage girls — some of the most commonly-identified and discussed subjects of perfectionism — consistently experience pressure to prove ourselves worthy of respect. We inevitably fall into the role of representatives of our demographic while simultaneously competing with the rest of our patronized cohort, and are expected to smile while doing it. As a group that is largely mocked for nearly every characteristic, teenage girls often feel they must succeed wildly in every arena simply to be taken seriously. They don’t have the luxury of being able to display their own abilities, individuality, and humanly faults.

“Perfection” is an imaginary concept endorsed by current mainstream culture. As a manifestation of this collective belief in perfection, the media has created an image of perfection that is largely accepted as the expected norm. These arbitrary benchmarks of success are effectively unreachable for the majority of the population. Girls in particular face standardized guidelines for expected conduct in nearly all aspects of our lives should we wish to be accepted and respected in mainstream society. Our bodies, attitudes, diets, social lives, aspirations, speech, sexuality, and responsibilities, among other topics, are subject to clear societal expectations with equally clear social ramifications for disobedience. We risk being labeled abrasive, snarky, bitchy, bossy, controlling, emotionally unstable, snobby, crazy, slutty, and a host of other adjectives reserved for when we do not comply with the portrait of womanhood that society as a whole is comfortable with. We are faced with the well-intentioned message to be ourselves but simultaneously expected to adhere to a generalized, fairly rigid social construct of success.

Part 2: Perfectionism and intersectionality

The insidious convictions of perfectionism seem likely to permeate modern culture beyond the frontier of rich white girls. Once viewed simply as an affliction of the privileged invented to fill the unavoidable human need for distress, perfectionism as a product of many cultural forces at work today — including racism, sexism, classism, sizeism, etc. — has diverse implications for many people. One of the most striking facets of modern perfectionism is the influence of the dominant, internalized mold of success: white, thin, Christian, privileged, accomplished, humble, driven. Many girls and young people will never be able to squeeze themselves into this template of a “perfect woman.” Despite this undeniable reality, girls from low income families, girls of color, and otherwise marginalized girls are not only expected to excel in a system that was clearly not built for them, but also to serve as representatives and ambassadors for their entire cohort. They are supposed to prove that people of their backgrounds are ‘just as good’ or capable as their privileged counterparts. These teenagers may feel responsible to achieve perfection even beyond their own, because any misstep could be skewed as an indicator for their entire marginalized identity.

As a white, middle class, young woman, it is essential that I (and other women of my demographic) expose the real and damaging consequences that result from a system in which making a mistake entails being a mistake.  Simultaneously, our confronting of this concern must include examining perfectionism in many of our peers without many of our privileges. Our responsibility to not only self-advocate but also to dismantle the narrow mainstream perceptions of perfectionism begins with regaining our own sense of self and cementing our self-worth. If we cannot realize and accept nuances in our own expectations for ourselves, it becomes exponentially more difficult to do so with others.

One of the reasons many people become trapped in perfectionism is the promise that a certain way of being guarantees happiness. We believe that if we follow specific guidelines and adhere to a mold that society has deemed “right,” then we will be happy. In addition to the pervasive depiction of perfection as white, wealthy, and fitting into hegemonic Christian culture, women’s bodies are highly scrutinized and play an influential role in determining status, respect, achievement, and self-image. The general consequence is that women become ashamed, subservient, and preoccupied with their diets and bodies.

The concepts of body positivity, fat acceptance, and Health at Every Size are absolute game changers when it comes to self-confidence and individuality. These movements offer alternatives to the sanctified thin ideal, exposing the “perfect body” as a largely unattainable social construct. Allowing for and teaching body diversity can serve as a gateway to countless opportunities for individual and community exploration.

Part 3: What can we do about it?

The long term solution to challenging perfectionism is to dismantle the oppressive system that says what we produce and what we look like determines our worth. Our ultimate objective — to cultivate an environment that fosters confident, compassionate, healthily ambitious girls/young people of all colors, bodies, and backgrounds — includes abolishing sexism, racism, classism, sizeism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination. Of course, this is an ambitious goal that will require time and significant overhauls of many conventional beliefs. There is no individual blame, but rather products of an entrenched system that impacts all of us. In the meantime, we can take immediate steps towards that ultimate objective — by addressing individual issues including understanding desire for extensive control, breaking free of the pressure of constant advancement, and broadening our definition of success.

A common characteristic of perfectionism is the need for control. Depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other mental illnesses often associated with perfectionism share this desire for control, indicating an effective antidote in learning how to relinquish obsessive control. In his book The Pursuit of Perfect, author and teacher Tal Ben-Shahar differentiates between “optimalists” and “perfectionists:” optimalists find the benefits in a situation byaccepting inescapable circumstances and understanding the full implications and opportunities presented. Optimalism and perfectionism are not binary philosophies as simple as optimism and pessimism. As described by Brian Johnson in his Philosopher’s Notes on The Pursuit of Perfect, not only does everyone possess both optimalistic and perfectionistic tendencies, but optimalism indicates “EMBRAC[ING] the constraints of reality” whereas perfectionism includes “REJECT[ING] those constraints,” paving the way to failure and devastation.

As a complement to the age-old Golden Rule guiding interpersonal relationships, Ben-Shahar introduces the Platinum Rule: “Do not do unto yourself what you would not do unto others.” This principle of self-compassion includes avoiding unrealistic expectations of oneself and harsh reactions to failure unlikely to come from someone else. Other strategies for learning self-compassion involve exploring self-care techniques and positive self-talk.

Perfectionists often feel that asking for help is admitting failure, and therefore will chastise themselves and fall further into self-loathing should they need assistance. By teaching compassion for others — in addition to self-compassion — and collaboration skills, we can cultivate a supportive and nonjudgmental atmosphere. It is in this environment that young people can feel confident and grounded enough to think critically, analyze and discuss data and opinions, and formulate our own beliefs without losing ourselves in or feeling intimidated by external judgements.

Because we live in a fast-paced, growth-based society, the focus is frequently placed on the next step to greater success. We are all waiting for the next award, the next deal, opportunities for expansion, and what tomorrow’s schedule looks like. Yet, when I am able to step away from the continuous need to forge ahead, I am able to reflect, appreciate the work I’ve done and the people I’ve encountered, and actually live in the present moment — the only moment that truly exists. Personally, releasing the urge to jump straight from a completed project to a coming one allows me to feel more energized, peaceful, and equipped to handle the unknown challenges inherent in life. It is in these times of surrender and pause that I have come to understand what success truly means to me. Some of my most meaningful and gratifying accomplishments include learning to relinquish the need for relentless happiness and feeling solidly rooted in my own self-worth even as I take in external evaluations, judgements, and situations. By broadening the definition of success to include unconventional milestones that are personal and unique to each individual, we allow for personalized standards of achievement. Instead of basing progress and worth on standardized, often unattainable results that may or may not actually align with many people’s desires for a fulfilling life, we can lay the groundwork for a system that values people rather than perfection.